I’ve been teaching guitar privately since a very short time after I started playing, beginning around the time I was 15.
At the time, I didn’t know much, but what I did know I was happy to teach to people who were just getting started. (It’s possible I inherited a “teacher gene” because both of my parents were teachers—my mother for her career and my dad for a brief time when he first got our of college—and my sister became a teacher in the public school system, too.)
One of the first things people should learn when they begin playing the guitar is all of the open-position major chords, also often referred to as “cowboy” chords, like E, A, D, G, C and F, plus B7, just for good measure.
Believe it or not, just learning these seven chords will enable one to play hundreds (thousands?) of popular songs. And once you learn these chords, it’s very simple to learn their minor or minor seventh counterparts (Em, Am, Dm, or Em7, Am7, Dm7, for example), which opens the door to even more songs.
A great place to start is the immortal “Hey Joe,” written by Billy Roberts in 1962 and recorded in the mid-Sixties by many different bands, such as the Leaves, the Standells, the Surfaris, Love, the Music Machine, the Byrds, Tim Rose and, most notably, Jimi Hendrix.
“Hey Joe” is great for beginners because it 1) can be played using all first-position “cowboy” chords, and 2) repeats the same five-chord cycle over and over, C-G-D-A-E, which is known as a “cycle of fifths.” Jimi also created a very cool, but easy to play, intro for the song, so learning his version allows beginners to play something that sounds cool but is not overly challenging.
Another great song for beginners is “House of the Rising Sun,” a very old song whose origins have been disputed. The English rock band the Animals had a big hit with the song in 1964, and their keyboardist, Alan Price, claimed it was originally a 16th-century English folk song. Like “Hey Joe,” “House of the Rising Sun” is made up a simple first-position chord progression, Em-G-A-C, Em-G-B7, which repeats over and over.
In more recent times, a great song I’ve taught to many beginners is “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day. The song consists of only four different first-position chords and is easy to learn very quickly, even for a staunch beginner.
When I first started to play, the very first songs I learned were “On Top of Old Smoky” and “The Streets of Laredo;” great songs but maybe not as much fun for many people as “Hey Joe” and “House of the Rising Sun.” And—must I say it?—if you don’t feel compelled learn “Smoke on the Water” within the first week of picking up a guitar, you’re probably playing the wrong instrument.
A longtime contributor to Guitar World magazine, and the author and producer of literally hundreds of artist transcriptions, books, and instructional DVDs, Andy Aledort has influenced and inspired guitarists around the world for many years. During his long tenure at Guitar World, Aledort has written lesson features on such metal artists as Dimebag Darrell, Zakk Wylde, Avenged Sevenfold, Slipknot, Alexi Laiho, Yngwie Malmsteen, Trivium, Killswitch Engage, Nevermore and many others. He has also created many of Guitar World's best-selling instructional DVDs, including How to Play Hard Rock and Heavy Metal and Guitar World's best-selling DVD, How to Play the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Axis: Bold as Love. A brilliant guitarist in his own right, he has worked with Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and the Band of Gypsys rhythm section of bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles.